By Christmas, the world will be awash with so-called smart speakers. Apple’s HomePod will be out, Google will have launched the Home Mini, and there will be a second-generation of Amazon Echo setting-up shop in peoples' homes.
These are all speakers made by companies that are smart, but not first and foremost experts in audio. That’s why for hi-fi fans, the current trend for audio companies licensing smart technology is much more interesting.
With that in mind, it’s exciting that - after much teasing - Sonos has finally launched its own smart speaker, the One.
The Sonos One is essentially a Play:1 with Amazon Alexa built-in, and that’s a winning combination in our book. It isn’t completely without limitations, though, and the question of whether to upgrade from a Play:1 to a One is a tricky one.
In shape and size, the One looks are practically identical to the Play:1. The only significant aesthetic departure is the replacement of the Play:1’s grey wraparound grille with a black or white grille, depending on the colour of speaker you’ve chosen.
Overall, the One blends into its surroundings even more effectively than its predecessor.
Things have changed on the top plate, where the three buttons of the Play:1 have been replaced by a touch-sensitive panel decorated with a circle of tiny, white LEDs and symbols.
These represent play/pause, the microphone and Sonos’ now-familiar context-sensitive actions, while the white LEDs illustrate when Alexa is switched on.
Sonos is keen to point out that switching Alexa off is a matter of tapping the microphone symbol, and your total privacy is represented by the lights being off altogether.
Unlike the Play:1, the One also gets a dedicated Pairing button, just above the ethernet socket.
You no longer need to have one of your Sonos units wired into your router, although we’d still recommend using cables for the most stable and reliable connection. Sonos’ wireless network is one of the best around, so you are unlikely to encounter too many issues with the wi-fi route.
Although you can switch Alexa off entirely, it’s often worth having her listening, particularly because she is more deeply integrated here than with rivals.
The clearest example is that you can talk to the One exactly as you would Amazon’s own Echo, so instead of having to say “Alexa, play Bowie on Sonos”, you simply say “Alexa, play Bowie”, and one of his classics will spring forth from your One. That might sound like a small detail but, in terms of regular interaction, it’s a big difference.
If you want to voice-control music in other rooms, specify where (eg. “Alexa, play Bowie in the lounge”) and the One will send music to the Sonos kit you’ve ascribed to that ‘zone’ – even a non-Alexa-enabled Sonos speaker, such as a PlayBar or Play:5. “Alexa, play Bowie everywhere” sets all your Sonos speakers to synchronised Ziggy Stardust mode.
If you’re worried that having Dancing In The Street blaring from your One will prevent Alexa from hearing your request to skip Dancing in the Street, a combination of noise-cancelling, something called “smart voice capture” and a custom-designed six-microphone array ensures that she can always hear you.
But there is another, bigger issue, which is that, at launch, Alexa on the One can only play music from Amazon Prime Music, despite Spotify already being supported by both Alexa and Sonos separately.
It’s a strange situation, but thankfully not one we will have to endure for long as, according to Sonos, Spotify should be properly looped in before Christmas.
If you subscribe to another music service, it will be supported by the One in the same way as it is by any other Sonos product, but you won’t be able to play music from that service using Alexa.
You can control Tidal, for example, via the Sonos app as normal, but if you say “Alexa, play some Wild Beasts”, it will stream from Amazon Prime Music. If you play an album via Tidal, you can at least use Alexa to skip tracks and change volume.
Of course, you can also use Alexa on the One exactly as you do an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot, so as well as playing music you can set timers and alarms, check the weather, add items to your shopping list – all small features, but useful nonetheless. We’d suggest the One is particularly good as a kitchen speaker.
We have loud music playing from the One in the kitchen and can still get Alexa’s attention from the adjoining room with only a slightly raised voice.
You know when Alexa hears you, too, as any mention of her name is met with a chime of acknowledgement, signalling that you can continue your request. That might make the experience sound disjointed, but it’s quick and natural.
With an Echo Dot you look for a visual clue that Alexa is listening. The One’s chime is quicker and more in keeping with audio communication, so it leads to more natural-feeling interactions.
The quality of the microphones make the One less likely to mis-hear your requests and instructions – we find it makes fewer mistakes than our Echo Dot. Correctly hearing the request is only half the battle, though, and Alexa is still capable of misunderstanding.
The most common issue is when you say “play Ladytron” (for example) and she instead starts playing a song with those words in the title. That can be annoying at first, but you can avoid that by saying “play some music by Ladytron” instead.
When we first heard the One at the launch event, we suspected it was a slight sonic upgrade on the Play:1 but, having listened to both in our testing rooms, the two speakers sound pretty much identical.
That’s no bad thing, though, because the Play:1 was already near the top of the sonic charts for wireless speakers at this price point.
We’d recommend going to the effort of TruePlay tuning the One with an iPhone (if you have one), as it opens the sound up. We prefer the sound with the Loudness setting left on, but experiment to discover which combination works best for you and your room.
We set it up the way we like, and get a delivery that’s weighty, full-bodied and loud – not traits you’d generally expect from a wireless speaker.
The soundstage is spacious and impressively organised, with vocals given plenty of breathing room, making them instantly more engaging.
That’s not to say that instruments are left out - they emerge in an impressively stereo-like way from either side of the singer. It’s rather sophisticated and natural in that regard.
The One’s weight makes for deep, solid bass for a speaker this size, and there’s enough rhythm to just about keep up with Trivium’s Pull Harder On The Strings Of Your Martyr, and enough tonal shading to make the most of Flea’s finest Red Hot Chili Peppers basslines.
Treble is crisp and clear, but treads a fine line between excitement and harshness. You’ll occasionally notice the odd sharp edge or hint of sibilance, but it’s not enough to be bothersome. More often, it’s simply clear and sparkly.
As with the Play:1, two Sonos Ones can be combined to create a stereo pair capable of filling a room with hi-fi-like focus, and for £400 that would be quite an accomplished little system. Given the sonic similarities, it’s a shame you can’t form a stereo pair from one One and one Play:1.
Buying two Alexa-powered speakers for one room just feels like overkill, particularly if you already have a Play:1. Unsurprisingly, you can also use the One as a surround speaker for a PlayBase or PlayBar-based system, with or without a subwoofer.
The One isn’t the only way to add Alexa to a Sonos system – you can download the Sonos public beta that enables you to add an Echo or Echo Dot to your multi-room system, which brings with it the ability to send music to your Sonos speakers.
That’s not as neat, though, as you need to specify which room or speaker you want to listen on. A system comprised of Sonos Ones, on the other hand, will respond based on proximity - unless you instruct otherwise.
The combination of the Sonos Play:1’s audio talents and Alexa’s usefulness and intelligence is a real winner, particularly as the One costs broadly the same as its predecessor.
There are flies in the ointment – the initial lack of voice-control for Spotify is one – but the fact you’re not paying extra for the addition of Alexa makes this a win-win situation. Those in the Google ecosystem will be delighted to hear that Google Assistant will be added to the Sonos One next year, along with AirPlay 2.
A word of warning, though: we experienced some bugginess we believe is related to the beta software powering our review copy of the One. It seems to rear its head when you unplug the speaker for a while, and involves Alexa becoming unresponsive and music services disappearing, which can only be resolved by a factory reset.
Because a) you’re unlikely to unplug the One regularly and b) we believe it’s related to the beta software, we’re not going to dock the One a star. However, we will monitor the situation after its launch and adjust this review if the issue seems widespread.
But that software niggle aside, the Sonos One is one of the best £200 wireless speakers made smarter and, therefore, even better.